Victory! Directly impacted people in New Orleans win America's most progressive public housing policy after four years of organizing!
VOTE's Executive Director, Norris Henderson, and Deputy Director, Bruce Reilly, wrote this letter to the city of New Orleans regarding its consolidated plan for housing justice. Read the letter below:
Find out more about the struggle to end divisive public housing in New Orleans and nationally.
VOTE and Stand With Dignity continue to push for a mandatory policy on private developers
We did it. The power of organizing put this issue of dividing up our community squarely on the map. The power or directly impacted people providing policy expertise is here to stay. And the public housing authorities have recognized that we need to revise our rules after generations of dismantling our families based on criminal records. But there is more work to do.
Just this past week came the revelation from one of President Nixon's closest staffers that the Drug War was fabricated as a way of targeting and disrupting communities.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
24 The Drug War has been an incredible success for such champions of community disruption. Policies that deny stability through housing, employment, food stamps, and education all focus on convictions, rather than skin color or political ideology.
Whereas it is relatively easy for an organized public to demand policies that serve the people, it is more challenging in a nation that privatizes so many public programs. First through the Hope VI program, and then in the aftermath of Katrina, the majority of affordable housing options became a primarily private, corporate-owned, program. And the gap continues to grow every year.
When working well, HANO serves as the people of New Orleans' gatekeeper, watchdog, and pitbull for affordable housing. On the national level, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) serves a similar purpose. Just this year, HUD announced that they want to recommit to their obligation to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing, and their stated focus on New Orleans. "Affirmatively" means they should be out front, proactive, a catalyst to push fair housing further than its current situation: demolished like a lead-infused housing project.
History teaches us that vague policies leave many of us left behind to scramble around with underfunded legal services, idealistic civil rights lawyers, and grassroots organizations such as VOTE and Stand With Dignity. The long struggle for voting rights in this nation is a perfect example of struggling to create laws that can't be evaded. If, for example, all affordable housing programs are eventually under the control of private developers, corporate landlords, and individual Section 8 landlords, HANO will need a culture of control... or they will be controlled.
We continue to believe HANO can serve as the champion of the low income people they are tasked to support. We will continue to push them to push New Orleans and Washington, D.C., for more affordable housing, and non-discriminatory public housing where people can raise healthy families.
Stop Discrimination in Public Housing and Section 8
New Orleans is America’s incarceration leader, meaning it also leads the nation in families impacted by criminal convictions. Our city has invested in prison cells rather than proper responses to homelessness, addiction, mental illness, unemployment, and poor education. We have invested in one form of subsidized housing, cages, above all others. And we have intentionally barred masses of people from accessing housing, employment, and education after conviction, whether reentering from incarceration and even when merely sentenced to probation.
Over the past few decades, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) has increasingly used its discretion to deny housing. The rampant denials helped popularize a myth that all people with criminal records are legally banned from public housing, leading many to stop applying for housing support. By 2013, the people of New Orleans began pushing back to reunite their families.
SIgn the petition to create an inclusive public housing policy!
Current and former public housing residents shared stories of not being able to go back home to their families again. Impacted people came together through two grassroots organizations, VOTE and Stand With Dignity, and wrote a policy for HANO. Three years later, we continue to advocate for a clear and just policy around eligibility for public and section 8 housing for people with criminal records. We have been joined by a wide spectrum of people and local and national organizations.
Click Here to Sign the Petition:
We, the undersigned, call on HANO to: (1) pass the proposed policy, allowing families to be reunited when living in public housing or receiving vouchers and (2) make changes proposed by community members, making the criminal background policy mandatory on all owners and managers of public housing, granting HANO ultimate authority over 3rd party managers’ decisions to deny people housing, and requiring public reporting of all denials.
Affordable housing is a struggle for all people in New Orleans. However, communities of Color are hit hardest by the choice to invest in police, prosecutors and prisons rather than schools, jobs, and health care. We call on HANO to be part of the cultural shift to unify and elevate our city.
Unfortunately the waiting lists for public housing and vouchers are in the tens of thousands, in a city that has the highest percentage of personal income going to housing. It may be convenient for HANO that some people don't even try getting on the waiting list, as that would only put more pressure on them to, in turn, pressure the government for additional support. However, that convenience comes at a cost to our city, where tens of thousands of people are living in New Orleans with criminal records. People cannot be simply kicked down the river, and we will all sink or swim together.
Who We Are
Our Housing Justice work, like nearly all of our work, can not be done alone. Our primary partner is Stand With Dignity, part of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice.
Our other local partners in Housing Justice include: Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, Unity, and Vera Institute of Justice.
In 2012, two organizers from Stand With Dignity (Toya Lewis and Colette Tippy) came to a VOTE meeting, asking about partnering to push a new policy on criminal background screening procedures. Coincidentally, VOTE board member (and now deputy director) Bruce Reilly, J.D., had just completed a comprehensive national report, centered in New Orleans, "Communities, Evictions, and Criminal Convictions."
The report takes aim at one of many policies that use criminal conviction as a way to exclude; and these barriers have become a proxy for race in America. The report's intended audience is organizers, policy experts, and lawyers (who might file under a "disparate impact" civil rights theory).
After organizing around a standing room only January 22nd, 2013 HANO board meeting, VOTE and Stand With Dignity were joined by other local partners and gained the attention of the national HUD agency.